This page contains:
- Body transformation
- Child death
- Drug use
Down here among the dead, our fairy tales begin at the end. So Skullbone—hero, trickster, corpse—plans to dive into the great Maw that rends the sea-ice far beyond our gravelled shores. Against the frozen waves’ mottled blue and glassy white, the Maw yawns impenetrable. It’s the abyss that gazes back: a great round drain in the pure-snow world we woke up into. The rays of the midnight sun don’t penetrate it. There’s never been a corpse that leaped in and returned to sell the tale.
But Skullbone is the original corpse, the same cadaver who walked to the living lands and returned with his lover; he tunnelled under the mountains and brought darkness to these lands of light perpetual; his metatarsals were the first frigid flesh to tread upon this wind-swept snow. So Skullbone ties a piece of rope around his shrunken waist and gives the other end to his fellow-corpses. “As long as I keep tugging the rope regular,” says Skullbone, “let me be. But if I tug three times, haul me back.”
His fellow-corpses nod. Truth is, everyone in the afterdeath wonders what waits in the Maw, but no one’s been ready to take that last short leap.
“Here I go!” Skullbone calls.
Dead soles slapping the ice, Skullbone flings himself forward. For a moment he hangs suspended in cold air—his arms outstretched—his withered face tight with victory.
Then he drops into the Maw.
For a while, the tugs come regular on the rope. The corpses peer over the Maw’s edge, but they don’t dare slide their grey toes past the ice. Within the Maw—nothing. Not water, not darkness, not chaos. Just—void.
The tugs stop coming.
They haul the rope back, instructions be damned. It slithers out of the Maw with end frayed and no Skullbone in sight. The trickster’s luck finally ran out. The corpses toss the rope in the Maw and hightail it back to their lonely village.
That was the end of Skullbone. If he’s not climbed out of the Maw yet, then he’s in there still. As for the rest of us, we stayed dead happily ever after.
That’s always knotted my knickers—the way our fairy tales end. When I breathed and bled and sang, stories ran, “ … they lived happily ever after.” But you can’t verb death. It’s a sentence all on its own.
Still, “They deathed happily ever after” would be my druthers. But language grinds down even slower than the mountains that ring our cadaverous village.
Stories move quicker, at least. When you got an eternity to spend, you craft stories for the selling and telling. Tale finished, I waggle my wine-purple toes near the lifeless woodstove—poignant irony, having a woodstove and neither matches, nor breath, nor kindling—and signal for another beaker of briny seawater.
Wort sets it by my elbow. Good sort, Wort. Best bartender we’ve had.
The midnight sun lances the tavern windows, striping my long waxy fingers. They lie limp, out of practice. With a brittle fingernail, I tap a rhythm on the beaker. Almost music. Not quite.
Someone else spins a new yarn’s thread. I’ve heard every story before; this one bores me to oblivion. Some katabasis crossed with half-remembered science fiction. Leaning back, I gaze out the window. The frozen sea stretches forever, its meagre skin carved by the wind. A few corpses stroll the shoreline, gathering stones for gambling.
I spy something new.
A small dark shape staggers across the sea-ice. Lurching, disjointed. No one I recognize. When eternity piles up like snowdrifts, curiosity bites deep. I half-rise from my seat, ignoring the unfolding story as the diminutive stranger struggles up the shallow slope before the tavern.
It’s a kid. Died early, poor sod—he looks nine or ten. Stick limbs poke greenish out of fluorescent shorts and t-shirt. Despite myself, I flinch. Corpses don’t get chilled, but old habits die hard.
The kid slips inside, shoulders hunched as every eye falls on him. Not panting, but tensed like he wants to.
“New arrival?” Wort asks him.
“I—” His eyes flicker. “I came out of the Maw.”
Almost drop my damn beaker. Silence falls sharp. The kid juts his chin against our gaping stares. “Yeah, I came out of the Maw,” he repeats. “And Skullbone was there.”
Before he went into the Maw, Skullbone travelled to the living lands. When he was a breathing man, he’d had a lover, and the longer Skullbone deathed, the keener that separation stung.
Beyond the corpses’ village, there arose great mountains. To these mountains went Skullbone, for it was out of the mountains we had come. He told no one of his journeying; none accompanied him but the biting wind and the crunching of ice against the rock.
At the mountains’ feet, the wind spoke: “Should you find your lover and bring him back, then walk you first along the path, with your lover following behind. Do not look back until you feel the snow beneath your feet.”
Skullbone bowed, for in the land of the dead, the wind too has eyes. With strong gnarled fingers, he climbed, until he heaved himself onto a path which wound steadily upwards. Singing to himself, Skullbone walked up the mountain path and into the lands of the living. He staggered into a velvet summer night, warm breeze rank upon his rotting flesh, the sequined stars pricking his eye sockets.
He stumbled to his old village, his deathly grace slipped away. And in his old bed, Skullbone found his lover. I cannot repeat their conversation, but at length, his lover gathered his shoes and coat and followed Skullbone into the night, his living fingers curled in Skullbone’s dead ones.
“I must not look back,” Skullbone hissed, “or all shall be lost.”
His lover squeezed his hand. Sweat slicked Skullbone’s papery palm. Fighting a shudder, Skullbone strode towards the mountains’ distant gleaming. His lover’s pungent breath dragged across the back of his neck.
A flare of panic kindled beneath Skullbone’s ribs. He loosened his grasp, but his lover squeezed tighter. His red, red heart thudded like judgement, knelling in Skullbone’s ear. The smells—the sounds—the inescapable warmth—what a mistake Skullbone had made!
“You must go back!” cried Skullbone.
“No,” his lover whispered, with life’s relentless resolve. “I shall follow.”
Skullbone flailed and thrashed, and the scattered stones of the mountain path rattled underfoot. Far below, the midnight sun glinted off the village’s silver roofs and Skullbone glanced down. The snow had not yet passed under his feet.
“You cannot follow here,” Skullbone said. As the wind surged up, he looked back and gazed upon his lover’s fleshy face. Splotched with tears and plump with blood, it snarled—and vanished back to the living lands.
And so Skullbone saved the village from the horror of his living lover and learned a valuable lesson: that is, always listen to the wind.
If you want to spark chaos among the dead—liven things up, as it were—fling the words “Maw” and “Skullbone” into conversation. As the kid crosses his arms, we clustered corpses gasp. Truth be told, the last storyteller looks annoyed, but even she’s listening fierce.
I speak first. “You came out of the Maw?”
“Jumped in forever ago,” the kid says carelessly. “Don’t know how long.”
Nods all around. Time and eternity and all that.
“But I met Skullbone there, and he pushed me out, and he’s waiting.”
Around the tavern, corpses sneak peeks out the windows, their leathery tongues licking dry lips. Everyone wonders what the Maw holds. But it’s like dying all over again: no one returns to say whether it’s utter oblivion, or a paradise more fantastical than this one. Which wouldn’t be hard. This one bites, and not just from the cold.
Wort sidles up to me. “What do you think, Haydn?”
I’m the de facto leader? Kill me now.
I sigh. “Let’s go see.”
Not one stiff stays behind: beakers lie forgotten and Wort doesn’t even shut the door properly. The ice groans and cracks beneath us: glazed whale-belly blue, veined with white and speckled with bubbles. The kid keeps glancing over his shoulder, until I trot to catch up. “What’s your name?” I ask.
“Simon.” A pause. “That’s my living name.”
Hard not to roll my eyes. We don’t know our names when we’re born, and we lose them when we die. But the certainty in the kid’s voice shakes me. “Skullbone tell you so?”
Not a smirk. No whining. Just a child’s implacable logic. It sends shivers down my spine, metaphorically speaking.
Around the Maw, the ice rears up. White, jagged. Snow races along the roughened surface. If I could breathe, my lungs would crack with frostbite.
The Maw yawns, impenetrable as always. Absolutely nothing there. Certainly not Skullbone. The corpses lurch to a halt. The kid’s shoulders slump. No one speaks but the wind, screaming around our dead, dead bones.
The kid bites his lip. Baby teeth leave indents in the pallid flesh. Turning his back on us, he plops cross-legged in the snow. “When he comes back, you’ll be sorry!”
Wort snorts and turns away. Then another corpse, then another. One by one, the corpses trail back to the village, a slow-moving band of wizened bodies, bent against the wind.
Here’s the thing about oblivion. The longer you hang around the Maw, the more insistently it calls. I find myself edging nearer, my bare toes pushing up crushed ice. They look like frozen grapes, the nails shiny-swollen.
“Simon?” I say, gentle.
His little spine stays ramrod-straight. “He’ll come back. I said so.” Then, defiantly, “Skullbone never breaks a promise.”
Before Skullbone braved the living lands, he yearned to bring darkness to the dead. For here, the midnight sun shines always overhead. Shadows never lengthen and days never pass.
But light perpetual wearies the dead like winter. Its rays strike the snow pitilessly; the chill is sepulchral. So Skullbone searched the afterdeath’s far-reaching emptiness for darkness.
The ocean, he beseeched; to the wind, he pleaded. But though he crossed from horizon to horizon, he found neither shadow, nor gloom, nor pall. At last, he came to the mountains. Blankly they regarded him, bearded with snow and cragged with the wind’s ravaging.
“Have you any darkness, among your roots?” asked Skullbone.
The mountains said, “Dig.”
We bring nothing into the living world, and it is certain we carry nothing out. With only his bare hands, Skullbone thrust his fingers into frozen earth. Little by little, he tunnelled under the mountain, wriggling forward like a worm. How long Skullbone dug, I cannot say, but how familiar it felt: the wet earth packed around his nostrils and his fingernails clawing stones from his path.
Far from the sky’s blue stare, beneath the mountains’ roots, there nestled a patch of darkness. Skullbone cupped it in his hands, and carefully he bellied from the tunnel. Once outside, he put one eye to a crack in his fingers. The darkness rested safe within.
News of the darkness soon spread, and corpses lined up nearly to the Maw for the chance to peek into Skullbone’s clasped hands. Nor did a single look content them. Again and again they returned, until Skullbone’s temper frayed.
“I can’t stand here for eternity, can I?” he snapped.
But the corpses wailed as he turned to leave. Their dead fingers clutched at his elbows, his hair, his ankles. When he leaped, they followed. In a fit of pique, Skullbone hurled the darkness overhead, saying, “See it, then!”
For an instant, it blotted out even the midnight sun, and all the dead stood in the shadow of the grave. But then it burned away like mist, and only the light remained.
A long time after I reclaim my seat, Simon slouches in. No one glances at him as he slinks between the chairs and tables; Wort pretends not to hear when he asks for a drink. Sighing, I signal for an extra beaker.
“Where are you from, kid?”
Salt and snow sparkle in his limp hair. “The Maw.”
“Okay.” My voice stays easy. “What’s it like, then?”
Something passes over the kid’s face. Not a shadow, not precisely—but then it’s gone. Unease steals through me again, like wind off the frozen sea, but then he’s shrugging. “I dunno.”
“It’s nice,” he ventures, at last. “There’s … there’s stars at night.”
“They got night-times there?”
“Night-time, daytime.” Kid starts kicking his legs against my chair. “Skullbone goes on adventures every day, and if you’re his friend, you can come. And everyone’s his friend.”
“Must get busy.”
“No one cares.” He sucks his lower lip. “They got all the games I played before. And no one says it’s not your turn. No one’s mean at all. And they got—you know those, like, candy tubes?”
My fingers ache, suddenly. What I wouldn’t give—sell—hack off—for one hour with a piano. Half-consciously, I press an old favourite on my thighs. Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony. Sometimes I want to weep for wanting to hear it again.
“They got music?” I ask, feigning nonchalance.
“They got everything.”
Melodies surge up inside, like ice crashing upon the shore. Mumbling an excuse, I wander to a group on the tavern’s far side. They’re retelling Skullbone bringing the darkness, but the words rush past. My fingers mark half-remembered phrases across my skin, dancing a pattern I can almost taste.
I walk out into the brilliant light. Stumbling, single-minded, scarcely watching my step. But I’m not surprised when I reach the Maw.
Empty and voracious, it gazes back coolly. I scoop a chunk of ice from the ground and hurl it in. Nothing happens, of course. It vanishes, disappearing forever into—a starry night? A swell of music?
Scraping behind me. Wort clears his throat, looking sheepish. “What are you doing here?”
“Due diligence.” I try to laugh.
Wort doesn’t buy it. For a moment, he stands on tiptoes, peering over the edge. Then his face clouds over. “Kid tells a good story. But Skullbone’s just a fairy tale.”
Yeah, he is. And the dead—we got nothing but stories. Easy to see how this one could get out of hand.
Still. Fairy tales have an annoying habit of being true.
Long before Skullbone found darkness under the mountains, there was another corpse with a story he coveted: a tale remembered whole from the land of the living. Try though Skullbone might, he could not persuade the corpse to part with her story. Tight-lipped, she kept it to herself, and not a morsel of it did she slip into another tale.
“I’ll sell it,” she said, “but only for the right price.”
“I’ve a hundred thousand stories threaded through my marrow,” said Skullbone, “and a hundred thousand poems besides. Some are true: all are real. What will you take for it?”
The other corpse smiled. “A glass of wine.”
Only salt water flowed in the land of the dead, but Skullbone gathered beakers from the village huts and strode onto the sea. When he returned, the other corpse scoffed. “I want no sea-water for this tale.”
“It is not fermented yet.” And Skullbone placed the beakers in the window’s sun. Each time he passed, he adjusted their position and shook them just so.
The other corpse watched, and fretted, and eventually asked, “What now?”
“They must rest in the snow. Do you know nothing about the wine of the dead?”
Embarrassed, the corpse helped him bury the beakers in a snowbank. There they lay, while Skullbone ignored them. “You mustn’t look at them at this stage,” he said sagely. “As you know.”
The other corpse averted her eyes.
But at last, Skullbone uncovered his beakers. While the corpse watched, astounded, he whispered to them, each by each. When he finished, he raised a beaker to his lips. “Remember: only true storytellers can taste my wine.”
The corpse seized another. “Let me try!”
But though she drank and drank, coldness and salt only met her tongue. The trickster corpse tilted his head. “Was it to your liking?”
She hesitated. “It—”
“Of course,” he went on. “The richer the tales, the richer the body.”
“It was wonderful,” she croaked.
He smiled. “Then I’ll have my tale.”
Duly sold, truly told. Once he had learned her tale, he shared it freely among the dead—you’ve heard it too, so we shall tell it another time.
Home again, home again. If I were living, I’d say that days passed. But there’s no time in the afterdeath, only eternity. Ours is an asymptotic existence: nearing the day after forever, never actually arriving.
I try to forget Simon. Scrape the possibility of Skullbone from my mind. Since there isn’t a stick of furniture in my hut, I lie flat on my back and watch the light play across the corrugated tin ceiling. Under my breath, I hum a mass that haunts me like a ghost. D minor. But I don’t have perfect pitch and no way to tune myself.
If I could cry, I would.
I sit up. Rub my dry eyes. Curse myself once or twice, and then amble back to the tavern. Simon sits in a corner by himself, staring across the ice. When he sees me, he straightens with a guilty shiver.
No time to waste words. “Corpses jump into the Maw all the time,” I say. “How’d you manage to climb out?”
Sighing, I lower my voice. “You heading back to the Maw soon?”
“What’s your name, again?”
“Was that your living name?’
“No.” I fail to keep the bitterness out. “I’m afraid Skullbone hasn’t shared mine with me.”
Simon stands up. Against his cloud-grey face, his eyes are wide and dark: miniature Maws. Then he offers his hand. For a moment, I stay there: rigor mortis rigid, cold inside and out. Silent as a piano with cut strings. But Simon doesn’t flinch at my scowl. Doesn’t turn away. Just leaves his hand there. Against my better judgement, I take it.
In the earliest days of his death, Skullbone made a bet that he could tell a story to fill eternity. “Once upon a time,” he said, “there was a corpse named Skullbone. He knew a story that could fill eternity. This is how it went…
“‘Once upon a time, there was a corpse named Skullbone. He knew a story that could fill eternity. This is how it went…
“‘Once upon a time, there was a corpse named Skullbone. He knew a story that could fill eternity. This is how it went…”
He didn’t tell it further. Everyone had guessed the ending.
He won the bet, though.
As we stagger over plunging cracks and wind-sculpted ridges, I croon to Simon what I can remember. Symphonies. Oratorios. Half a concerto. My fingers tense and release where they should, but the phrases start and stutter and stop like a failing heart. Like mine did, maybe.
The wind flings loose snow into my eyes; it stings my bloodless lips. To every side, the ice stretches gleaming to the horizons. Heads bowed against the keening gales, we stagger through barrenness.
Here’s the thing about the afterdeath. When you first get here, you’re relieved. This is it? This is death? Okay. This is okay. This, you can handle. Other corpses for stories and chat. Seawater to sip. Cold as the devil’s ass-crack, but hey—we’re dead. Chill’s natural to us as warmth to the living.
But when that sun doesn’t set—when you rouse yourself and the same story’s droning on—when the ice and mountains crowd like claustrophobia made manifest—you realize:
This is it. This is death. Or worse, this is what comes after. Be grateful it’s not total oblivion, we tell each other. But sometimes, I wonder: isn’t this oblivion, too?
The Maw’s blank indifference weakens my knees. The wind roars over it, offended by its gaping negative space. Hand slipping free from Simon’s grip, I kneel at the edge. Stray ice pellets cascade into the abyss.
“Should we wait?” I ask.
Simon shuffles. “Yeah.”
Fine by me. Knees to chest, I sit on the wind-roughened ice. Stare into the void like I’ll glimpse angelic choirs on the far side. But the Maw’s emptiness sets my head spinning, so I retreat a little. Rest my eyes on the thin grey snow.
Simon’s gone silent, his shoulders slumped.
“Chin up, kid,” I say, even as hope sinks in my chest.
“Okay,” he whispers.
For a long, long period, we wait. Just the two of us, sitting at the edge of the unknown. The wind shreds our dead skin. Peaceful and patient the dead may rest, but we’re not fools. The capsizing feeling in my belly strengthens. By the time Simon sidles away from me, I know.
“He’s not coming.”
Simon shakes his head. Looking ashamed, at least.
I’m numb. “Did you make the whole thing up?”
“It was a good story,” he whispers. “Wasn’t it?”
Legend has it that Skullbone was the first corpse to walk this frozen waste, but that’s bullshit. He wasn’t a fucking Homo erectus, was he? Where do you draw the line, anyway? Did all the Australopithecus go somewhere else?
But the story goes like this, anyway. Once upon a time, well beyond the mountains of the dead, there lived a man. He lived, and he loved, and then he died.
And he ended up here. Mottled grey feet flat to the snow. Livor mortis flush reddening his jawline and the undersides of his arms. The first of all corpses wandered a senseless path through the snow and found only a frozen sea, a clutch of hovels, and the great Maw opening like a hellmouth in the middle of it all.
He wasn’t a trickster, then. He was just a man, now dead.
He cried for his mother, his grandmother. He shouted at the wind and the mountains until his voice rasped to silence. Nothing changed. Nothing ever changed.
But eventually, we named him Skullbone. We told all sorts of stories about him. They kept us going, more than anything else. Lent meaning to the emptiness, connected us each to each. Nerved our hearts to take that final step into whatever follows next.
And maybe he never existed. Probably, he didn’t. Maybe, in the end, that doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the stories do.
Silence. Even the wind drops down, waiting for me to snap. But I edge nearer the Maw, my toes caressing the iced-over lip. Simon stays safely distant, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his neon shorts.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I just—I really wanted—”
“You wanted it to be true.”
At least dead hearts can’t break. Blue sky above, black Maw below. My toes curl into the snow. Digging. Testing.
“Watch out,” Simon says.
But no one falls into the Maw. Not really. That’s the thing about the afterdeath. We largely don’t choose when we enter it. But I think all of us choose when we leave. Eternity is liminal space.
I glance over my shoulder.
“You can’t,” Simon says, uncertainly. “It wasn’t real.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
Simon shivers and shudders, chewing his lip. With a smile, I offer my hand. For a moment, he stays there: rigor mortis rigid, silent as the snow. But then, possibly against his better judgement, he takes it.
Music buzzes at my lips as we stand at the Maw’s edge. A requiem—I have to laugh. I’d expect nothing less. “Ready?” I ask Simon.
Down here among the dead, our fairy tales end at the beginning.